On December 8, 1941, America entered World War II. Thousands of young men rushed to enlist and join the war effort even blacks, who were living in what was essentially a separate America, with fewer rights and little representation in the government. Their desire to serve a country that wouldn't serve them is a singular example of patriotism.
Many of these black volunteers wanted to be pilots something the Army War College had somehow determined through a series of studies was impossible because blacks were "unfit for leadership roles and incapable of aviation." President Franklin D. Roosevelt, made aware of the Army War College studies, opted to veto the army's advice. The NAACP's then-recent lawsuit to force the government into accepting Yancy Williams' application for military pilot training had pushed the argument to this point, but give Roosevelt credit for making the right choice: The president ordered the creation of an aviation training program for blacks, located in Tuskegee, Alabama, and the legend of the Tuskegee Airmen officially began.
Operating out of segregated bases, with no access to officers' clubs, often living in substandard housing and being subjected to the blatant racism of other officers and enlisted men, the Tuskegee Airmen didn't just prove the Army War College wrong they gave the lie to the myth that black Americans were lazy, shiftless and incapable of excelling at anything other than manual labor. Soon white pilots were requesting the black pilots as escorts, because no other fighter wing guarded their bombers as doggedly.
By the close of World War II, the Tuskegee Airmen were renowned for their excellent flying in 1,500 missions, the Red Tails (so named for the distinctive paint jobs on the tails of their planes) are reputed to have never lost a bomber they escorted. They never abandoned their charges, never chased after enemy fighters to do so and lose a bomber to enemy aircraft was to jeopardize the future of black aviation, and all of the pilots knew it. ABC News has recently reported that two unnamed historians claim the Airmen did in fact lose "a few" bombers to the Germans; tell this to a Tuskegee Airman and you'll get the response, "We couldn't lose a bomber, because if you did, you didn't come back to the base." It wasn't a joke then, and it's not a joke now. These men were fighting for generations yet to come.
The effect of the program is not in dispute: The Tuskegee Airmen proved that blacks could be officers and pilots, and the 992 men who completed the training paved the way for the eventual integration of the U.S. armed forces with their resounding success. As the Airmen are fond of saying, they fought a war on two fronts: fascism in Europe, racism at home. The first war, they won outright; the second, well, the fight continues.
On March 29 the Tuskegee Airmen as a group received the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor for their "unique military record, which inspired revolutionary reform in the Armed Forces," according to the official proclamation. Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives, presented the medal to a select group of Tuskegee Airmen in the Great Hall of the Library of Congress. It's an honor St. Louisan Lewis John Lynch, along with his brothers in arms, waited a lifetime to receive.
In Lew's case, it came almost too late. An original Tuskegee Airman, a veteran of 42 combat missions in World War II, a career Air Force officer with 20-plus years' experience, a St. Louisan for the past 40 years and one of the kindest, most gracious men you could ever hope to meet, Lew is dying in a hospice. His son David made the trip to Washington in his place, wearing a photo of his father pinned to his jacket so the rest of the unit would know Lew made it in spirit. Many sons and daughters also stood as proxies for their fathers; out of the 930 or so Airmen who survived the war, very few survived the long wait to be recognized for their singular achievement in the healing of America's racial rift. The long years that reaped the Airmen one by one finally caught up to Lew, and what should have been a proud day for the Lynch family was bittersweet at best. And it was bittersweet for me and my family as well. Lew has been my mother's companion, and essentially stepfather to me and my sister, for fourteen years.
Lew's pride in his status as an original Tuskegee Airman was boundless, but he wore it lightly: This was a man whose e-mail address was "Lvglegend," and who took great delight in pointing himself out in Solomon Thurman Jr. and Spencer Taylor's mural Black Americans in Flight, which hangs permanently in the main terminal at Lambert St. Louis International Airport. He was likewise thrilled when the local chapter of the Black Pilots Association took his name as the group's official designation. And Lew's outright joy at his portrayal in fellow Airman Robert Williams' 1995 HBO film The Tuskegee Airmen Mekhi Phifer portrayed "Lewis Johns" was lessened only somewhat by Williams' killing off his good friend in the first third of the movie for "dramatic effect." (What are best friends for?)
Despite his easy acceptance of his legend status, Lew took the responsibility that came with this stature very seriously. For most of his retirement, he devoted himself to speaking about his experiences in classrooms, at universities and before civic groups; like most Airmen, he wanted the significance of what they accomplished to be better known among the general populace but not for personal aggrandizement. What he and the other Tuskegee Airmen most wanted was to inspire another generation to continue their legacy both as pilots and as active participants in the war on racism.
One of Lew's best war stories had nothing to do with war. During his training at Tuskegee, he was in danger of washing out because he couldn't master the physics of the stall. Since he was four years old, all Lew had dreamed of doing with his life was being a pilot. He'd taken night courses at Ohio State University while working first on the railroad and then as a porter in a theater, fought the U.S. Army's admission policy on height (he'd twice been denied entry for being too tall, even though there were taller pilots than he already receiving their wings) and finally made it into a plane, and now he couldn't master this necessary skill. On what should have been an off day, his instructor took him up in a plane and had him perform the maneuver over and over again, forcing Lew to ignore the instrument panel and instead learn by feel when the plane would stall. Rather than let Lew fail, that instructor took the extra step and ensured that Lew would earn his wings he'd come so far to get to that point, and there was so much at stake. Lew finished third in his class.
That moment, when a white flight instructor in 1943 Alabama made the decision to reach out and help a black man achieve his lifelong dream, is the essence of the Tuskegee Airmen experience. The Tuskegee Airmen never stooped to conquer; they linked arms and helped lift one another up. Faced with such perseverance and dignity, white America had no choice but to respond in kind acknowledging the basic human dignity that black America had been denied for too long. It didn't happen overnight, but it happened. Men like Lewis Lynch spent their lives making it happen, flight by flight, lecture by lecture, person by person. That so many of the 992 didn't live long enough to see their efforts acknowledged and honored by their own country is painful and sad. That the recognition came at all is a testament to the undying legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen.